The kite runner, p.25
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       The Kite Runner, p.25
 

           Khaled Hosseini

  A look of surprise passed across Assef 's face, briefly, and disappeared. "I see this may turn out to be enjoyable after all," he said, snickering. "But there are things traitors like you don't understand."

  "Like what?"

  Assef 's brow twitched. "Like pride in your people, your customs, your language. Afghanistan is like a beautiful mansion littered with garbage, and someone has to take out the garbage."

  "That's what you were doing in Mazar, going door-to-door? Taking out the garbage?"

  "Precisely."

  "In the west, they have an expression for that," I said. "They call it ethnic cleansing."

  "Do they?" Assef 's face brightened. "Ethnic cleansing. I like it. I like the sound of it."

  "All I want is the boy."

  "Ethnic cleansing," Assef murmured, tasting the words.

  "I want the boy," I said again. Sohrab's eyes flicked to me. They were slaughter sheep's eyes. They even had the mascara--I remembered how, on the day of Eid of qorban, the mullah in our backyard used to apply mascara to the eyes of the sheep and feed it a cube of sugar before slicing its throat. I thought I saw pleading in Sohrab's eyes.

  "Tell me why," Assef said. He pinched Sohrab's earlobe between his teeth. Let go. Sweat beads rolled down his brow.

  "That's my business."

  "What do you want to do with him?" he said. Then a coy smile. "Or to him."

  "That's disgusting," I said.

  "How would you know? Have you tried it?"

  "I want to take him to a better place."

  "Tell me why."

  "That's my business," I said. I didn't know what had emboldened me to be so curt, maybe the fact that I thought I was going to die anyway.

  "I wonder," Assef said. "I wonder why you've come all this way, Amir, come all this way for a Hazara? Why are you here? Why are you really here?"

  "I have my reasons," I said.

  "Very well then," Assef said, sneering. He shoved Sohrab in the back, pushed him right into the table. Sohrab's hips struck the table, knocking it upside down and spilling the grapes. He fell on them, face first, and stained his shirt purple with grape juice. The table's legs, crossing through the ring of brass balls, were now pointing to the ceiling.

  "Take him, then," Assef said. I helped Sohrab to his feet, swatted the bits of crushed grape that had stuck to his pants like barnacles to a pier.

  "Go, take him," Assef said, pointing to the door.

  I took Sohrab's hand. It was small, the skin dry and calloused. His fingers moved, laced themselves with mine. I saw Sohrab in that Polaroid again, the way his arm was wrapped around Hassan's leg, his head resting against his father's hip. They'd both been smiling. The bells jingled as we crossed the room.

  We made it as far as the door.

  "Of course," Assef said behind us, "I didn't say you could take him for free."

  I turned. "What do you want?"

  "You have to earn him."

  "What do you want?"

  "We have some unfinished business, you and I," Assef said. "You remember, don't you?"

  He needn't have worried. I would never forget the day after Daoud Khan overthrew the king. My entire adult life, whenever I heard Daoud Khan's name, what I saw was Hassan with his slingshot pointed at Assef 's face, Hassan saying that they'd have to start calling him One-Eyed Assef instead of Assef Goshkhor. I remember how envious I'd been of Hassan's bravery. Assef had backed down, promised that in the end he'd get us both. He'd kept that promise with Hassan. Now it was my turn.

  "All right," I said, not knowing what else there was to say. I wasn't about to beg; that would have only sweetened the moment for him.

  Assef called the guards back into the room. "I want you to listen to me," he said to them. "In a moment, I'm going to close the door. Then he and I are going to finish an old bit of business. No matter what you hear, don't come in! Do you hear me? Don't come in!"

  The guards nodded. Looked from Assef to me. "Yes, Agha sahib."

  "When it's all done, only one of us will walk out of this room alive," Assef said. "If it's him, then he's earned his freedom and you let him pass, do you understand?"

  The older guard shifted on his feet. "But Agha sahib--"

  "If it's him, you let him pass!" Assef screamed. The two men flinched but nodded again. They turned to go. One of them reached for Sohrab.

  "Let him stay," Assef said. He grinned. "Let him watch. Lessons are good things for boys."

  The guards left. Assef put down his prayer beads. Reached in the breast pocket of his black vest. What he fished out of that pocket didn't surprise me one bit: stainless-steel brass knuckles.

  HE HAS GEL IN HIS HAIR and a Clark Gable mustache above his thick lips. The gel has soaked through the green paper surgical cap, made a dark stain the shape of Africa. I remember that about him. That, and the gold Allah chain around his dark neck. He is peering down at me, speaking rapidly in a language I don't understand, Urdu, I think. My eyes keep going to his Adam's apple bobbing up and down, up and down, and I want to ask him how old he is anyway--he looks far too young, like an actor from some foreign soap opera--but all I can mutter is, I think I gave him a good fight. I think I gave him a good fight.

  I DON'T KNOW if I gave Assef a good fight. I don't think I did. How could I have? That was the first time I'd fought anyone. I had never so much as thrown a punch in my entire life.

  My memory of the fight with Assef is amazingly vivid in stretches: I remember Assef turning on the music before slipping on his brass knuckles. The prayer rug, the one with the oblong, woven Mecca, came loose from the wall at one point and landed on my head; the dust from it made me sneeze. I remember Assef shoving grapes in my face, his snarl all spit-shining teeth, his bloodshot eyes rolling. His turban fell at some point, let loose curls of shoulder-length blond hair.

  And the end, of course. That, I still see with perfect clarity. I always will.

  Mostly, I remember this: His brass knuckles flashing in the afternoon light; how cold they felt with the first few blows and how quickly they warmed with my blood. Getting thrown against the wall, a nail where a framed picture may have hung once jabbing at my back. Sohrab screaming. Tabla, harmonium, a dil-roba. Getting hurled against the wall. The knuckles shattering my jaw. Choking on my own teeth, swallowing them, thinking about all the countless hours I'd spent flossing and brushing. Getting hurled against the wall. Lying on the floor, blood from my split upper lip staining the mauve carpet, pain ripping through my belly, and wondering when I'd be able to breathe again. The sound of my ribs snapping like the tree branches Hassan and I used to break to swordfight like Sinbad in those old movies. Sohrab screaming. The side of my face slamming against the corner of the television stand. That snapping sound again, this time just under my left eye. Music. Sohrab screaming. Fingers grasping my hair, pulling my head back, the twinkle of stainless steel. Here they come. That snapping sound yet again, now my nose. Biting down in pain, noticing how my teeth didn't align like they used to. Getting kicked. Sohrab screaming.

  I don't know at what point I started laughing, but I did. It hurt to laugh, hurt my jaws, my ribs, my throat. But I was laughing and laughing. And the harder I laughed, the harder he kicked me, punched me, scratched me.

  "WHAT'S SO FUNNY?" Assef kept roaring with each blow. His spittle landed in my eye. Sohrab screamed.

  "WHAT'S SO FUNNY?" Assef bellowed. Another rib snapped, this time left lower. What was so funny was that, for the first time since the winter of 1975, I felt at peace. I laughed because I saw that, in some hidden nook in a corner of my mind, I'd even been looking forward to this. I remembered the day on the hill I had pelted Hassan with pomegranates and tried to provoke him. He'd just stood there, doing nothing, red juice soaking through his shirt like blood. Then he'd taken the pomegranate from my hand, crushed it against his forehead. Are you satisfied now? he'd hissed. Do you feel better? I hadn't been happy and I hadn't felt better, not at all. But I did now. My body was broken--just how badly I wouldn't
find out until later--but I felt healed. Healed at last. I laughed.

  Then the end. That, I'll take to my grave:

  I was on the ground laughing, Assef straddling my chest, his face a mask of lunacy, framed by snarls of his hair swaying inches from my face. His free hand was locked around my throat. The other, the one with the brass knuckles, cocked above his shoulder. He raised his fist higher, raised it for another blow.

  Then: "Bas." A thin voice.

  We both looked.

  "Please, no more."

  I remembered something the orphanage director had said when he'd opened the door to me and Farid. What had been his name? Za-man? He's inseparable from that thing, he had said. He tucks it in the waist of his pants everywhere he goes.

  "No more."

  Twin trails of black mascara, mixed with tears, had rolled down his cheeks, smeared the rouge. His lower lip trembled. Mucus seeped from his nose. "Bas," he croaked.

  His hand was cocked above his shoulder, holding the cup of the slingshot at the end of the elastic band which was pulled all the way back. There was something in the cup, something shiny and yellow. I blinked the blood from my eyes and saw it was one of the brass balls from the ring in the table base. Sohrab had the slingshot pointed to Assef 's face.

  "No more, Agha. Please," he said, his voice husky and trembling. "Stop hurting him."

  Assef 's mouth moved wordlessly. He began to say something, stopped. "What do you think you're you doing?" he finally said.

  "Please stop," Sohrab said, fresh tears pooling in his green eyes, mixing with mascara.

  "Put it down, Hazara," Assef hissed. "Put it down or what I'm doing to him will be a gentle ear twisting compared to what I'll do to you."

  The tears broke free. Sohrab shook his head. "Please, Agha," he said. "Stop."

  "Put it down."

  "Don't hurt him anymore."

  "Put it down."

  "Please."

  "PUT IT DOWN!"

  "Bas."

  "PUT IT DOWN!" Assef let go of my throat. Lunged at Sohrab.

  The slingshot made a thwiiiiit sound when Sohrab released the cup. Then Assef was screaming. He put his hand where his left eye had been just a moment ago. Blood oozed between his fingers. Blood and something else, something white and gel-like. That's called vitreous fluid, I thought with clarity. I've read that somewhere. Vitreous fluid.

  Assef rolled on the carpet. Rolled side to side, shrieking, his hand still cupped over the bloody socket.

  "Let's go!" Sohrab said. He took my hand. Helped me to my feet. Every inch of my battered body wailed with pain. Behind us, Assef kept shrieking.

  "OUT! GET IT OUT!" he screamed.

  Teetering, I opened the door. The guards' eyes widened when they saw me and I wondered what I looked like. My stomach hurt with each breath. One of the guards said something in Pashtu and then they blew past us, running into the room where Assef was still screaming. "OUT!"

  "Bia," Sohrab said, pulling my hand. "Let's go!"

  I stumbled down the hallway, Sohrab's little hand in mine. I took a final look over my shoulder. The guards were huddled over Assef, doing something to his face. Then I understood: The brass ball was still stuck in his empty eye socket.

  The whole world rocking up and down, swooping side to side, I hobbled down the steps, leaning on Sohrab. From above, Assef 's screams went on and on, the cries of a wounded animal. We made it outside, into daylight, my arm around Sohrab's shoulder, and I saw Farid running toward us.

  "Bismillah! Bismillah!" he said, eyes bulging at the sight of me. He slung my arm around his shoulder and lifted me. Carried me to the truck, running. I think I screamed. I watched the way his sandals pounded the pavement, slapped his black, calloused heels. It hurt to breathe. Then I was looking up at the roof of the Land Cruiser, in the backseat, the upholstery beige and ripped, listening to the ding-ding-ding signaling an open door. Running footsteps around the truck. Farid and Sohrab exchanging quick words. The truck's doors slammed shut and the engine roared to life. The car jerked forward and I felt a tiny hand on my forehead. I heard voices on the street, some shouting, and saw trees blurring past in the window. Sohrab was sobbing. Farid was still repeating, "Bismillah! Bismillah!"

  It was about then that I passed out.

  TWENTY-THREE

  Faces poke through the haze, linger, fade away. They peer down, ask me questions. They all ask questions. Do I know who I am? Do I hurt anywhere? I know who I am and I hurt everywhere. I want to tell them this but talking hurts. I know this because some time ago, maybe a year ago, maybe two, maybe ten, I tried to talk to a child with rouge on his cheeks and eyes smeared black. The child. Yes, I see him now. We are in a car of sorts, the child and I, and I don't think Soraya's driving because Soraya never drives this fast. I want to say something to this child--it seems very important that I do. But I don't remember what I want to say, or why it might have been important. Maybe I want to tell him to stop crying, that everything will be all right now. Maybe not. For some reason I can't think of, I want to thank the child.

  Faces. They're all wearing green hats. They slip in and out of view. They talk rapidly, use words I don't understand. I hear other voices, other noises, beeps and alarms. And always more faces. Peering down. I don't remember any of them, except for the one with the gel in his hair and the Clark Gable mustache, the one with the Africa stain on his cap. Mister Soap Opera Star. That's funny. I want to laugh now. But laughing hurts too.

  I fade out.

  SHE SAYS HER NAME IS AISHA, "like the prophet's wife." Her graying hair is parted in the middle and tied in a ponytail, her nose pierced with a stud shaped like the sun. She wears bifocals that make her eyes bug out. She wears green too and her hands are soft. She sees me looking at her and smiles. Says something in English. Something is jabbing at the side of my chest.

  I fade out.

  A MAN IS STANDING at my bedside. I know him. He is dark and lanky, has a long beard. He wears a hat--what are those hats called? Pakols? Wears it tilted to one side like a famous person whose name escapes me now. I know this man. He drove me somewhere a few years ago. I know him. There is something wrong with my mouth. I hear a bubbling sound.

  I fade out.

  MY RIGHT ARM BURNS. The woman with the bifocals and sun-shaped stud is hunched over my arm, attaching a clear plastic tubing to it. She says it's "the Potassium." "It stings like a bee, no?" she says. It does. What's her name? Something to do with a prophet. I know her too from a few years ago. She used to wear her hair in a ponytail. Now it's pulled back, tied in a bun. Soraya wore her hair like that the first time we spoke. When was that? Last week?

  Aisha! Yes.

  There is something wrong with my mouth. And that thing jabbing at my chest.

  I fade out.

  WE ARE IN THE SULAIMAN MOUNTAINS of Baluchistan and Baba is wrestling the black bear. He is the Baba of my childhood, Toophan agha, the towering specimen of Pashtun might, not the withered man under the blankets, the man with the sunken cheeks and hollow eyes. They roll over a patch of green grass, man and beast, Baba's curly brown hair flying. The bear roars, or maybe it's Baba. Spittle and blood fly; claw and hand swipe. They fall to the ground with a loud thud and Baba is sitting on the bear's chest, his fingers digging in its snout. He looks up at me and I see. He's me. I am wrestling the bear.

  I wake up. The lanky, dark man is back at my bedside. His name is Farid, I remember now. And with him is the child from the car. His face reminds me of the sound of bells. I am thirsty.

  I fade out.

  I keep fading in and out.

  THE NAME OF THE MAN with the Clark Gable mustache turned out to be Dr. Faruqi. He wasn't a soap opera star at all, but a head-and-neck surgeon, though I kept thinking of him as someone named Armand in some steamy soap set on a tropical island.

  Where am I? I wanted to ask. But my mouth wouldn't open. I frowned. Grunted. Armand smiled; his teeth were blinding white.

  "Not yet, Amir," he said, "but soon. When
the wires are out." He spoke English with a thick, rolling Urdu accent.

  Wires?

  Armand crossed his arms; he had hairy forearms and wore a gold wedding band. "You must be wondering where you are, what happened to you. That's perfectly normal, the postsurgical state is always disorienting. So I'll tell you what I know."

  I wanted to ask him about the wires. Postsurgical? Where was Aisha? I wanted her to smile at me, wanted her soft hands in mine.

  Armand frowned, cocked one eyebrow in a slightly self-important way. "You are in a hospital in Peshawar. You've been here two days. You have suffered some very significant injuries, Amir, I should tell you. I would say you're very lucky to be alive, my friend." He swayed his index finger back and forth like a pendulum when he said this. "Your spleen had ruptured, probably--and fortunately for you--a delayed rupture, because you had signs of early hemorrhage into your abdominal cavity. My colleagues from the general surgery unit had to perform an emergency splenectomy. If it had ruptured earlier, you would have bled to death." He patted me on the arm, the one with the IV, and smiled. "You also suffered seven broken ribs. One of them caused a pneumothorax."

  I frowned. Tried to open my mouth. Remembered about the wires.

  "That means a punctured lung," Armand explained. He tugged at a clear plastic tubing on my left side. I felt the jabbing again in my chest. "We sealed the leak with this chest tube." I followed the tube poking through bandages on my chest to a container half-filled with columns of water. The bubbling sound came from there.

  "You had also suffered various lacerations. That means 'cuts.'"

  I wanted to tell him I knew what the word meant; I was a writer. I went to open my mouth. Forgot about the wires again.

  "The worst laceration was on your upper lip," Armand said. "The impact had cut your upper lip in two, clean down the middle. But not to worry, the plastics guys sewed it back together and they think you will have an excellent result, though there will be a scar. That is unavoidable.

 
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